Ty Williams graduated from Quince Orchard High School in 2013, just a few months before this year’s graduates entered as freshmen. But they knew his story well.
Williams, the former standout QO football star and popular student, suffered a broken neck during his sophomore season playing football for Georgetown University and has been fighting to regain his ability to walk ever since while continuing his education at Georgetown.
“Ty’s story really connected with us,” said this year’s QO senior class president, Brett Williams. “He was a hometown hero.”
So when it came time for the Class of 2017 to select a graduation speaker, the choice was obvious: Ty Williams.
And Williams, as he has done so often in his young life, rose to the occasion with a speech that was remarkable in its strength, simplicity and poignancy—telling the new graduates to be themselves, accept others, and most of all, stay positive—as he delivered it from his wheelchair.
“It was an honor to be able to speak to the graduates,” said Williams, who himself will graduate from Georgetown in May 2018. He admitted that he was “crazy nervous leading up to it,” but that once he started speaking, “it felt amazing.”
“I could not have imagined that I would have this opportunity,” Williams told the graduates and their families at the commencement ceremony at DAR Constitution Hall, “and that in my four years after graduating from this same hall would lead me back here.”
And while he never mentioned himself or his circumstances, it was clear from his remarks that Williams was telling the graduates how he had handled the adversities he has faced since he left QO.
“Having a positive mindset can really change the way you see the world,” Williams said. “We ourselves have to be our number one motivator. In hard times, when our back is against the wall and we feel like there is no way out, we have to be the first ones to tell ourselves that it’ll be okay and that we must and will overcome. . . . Through surrounding ourselves with positivity we can breathe new life around us. We can take advantage of everything life has to offer by doing so.”
Williams, though barely out of his teens, also reminded the graduates not to be influenced by what others think or by “labels.”
“Do not allow yourself to be defined by yourself or by others,” he said. “We are so much more than just one part of ourselves. . . . Constantly adhering your actions to please others will drain you and leave you lost in your own body.”
And in letting yourself be yourself, Williams also reminded his audience to do the same for others.
“I hate the word normal,” Williams said. “It is a word of judgment and helps create the schisms, hate and prejudice we see today that separates our country and this world. There is a deep hatred rooted within this country that stems solely from the inability to accept those that are different. Putting a label on a human being is one of the greatest crimes committed day in and day out.”
“There is no normal,” Williams said. “We are all uniquely weird individuals and that is one of the greatest treasures given to us by life. So, let us stop judging others and be our true selves.”
“I thought Ty’s speech was terrific,” said QO principal Carole Working. “I think he reminded us of so much that is important in life.”
The graduates agreed.
“He inspired us,” said class president Williams. “He didn’t just talk about himself, but how his experiences applied to us. That really resonated with us.”
Moreover, said graduate Brittany Mills, “having a QO alumni speaker reinforced a sense of community. His speech encouraged us to enjoy every moment, which allowed us to reflect on our experience at QO with positivity and fondness.”
Ulric Ayivi-Fandalor said Williams “has an amazing story, and he gave great advice that I’ll take with me the rest of my life.”
Added Jessica Van Valkenburgh: “His speech really touched a lot of people . . . . We were really lucky to have him as our speaker.”
Principal Working said that as Williams spoke, she “was thinking how little time had passed between the moment when I shook his hand as a new graduate and the moment I watched such a mature and articulate young man address a new class of graduates. . . . The courage with which he has faced his personal circumstances is inspirational and provides an important lesson for us all.”
Williams continues to rehabilitate from his injury and work toward regaining his mobility. “I’ve been doing great,” he said. “I’ve also been fortunate enough to have noticeable improvement from week to week. It’s just a matter of time.”
Town Courier intern Johnny Fierstein, a member of the Class of 2017, contributed to this article.